It is the 85th anniversary of the first Macy’s Day Parade, hosted on this day in 1924 in New York City. Although held on Thanksgiving, as has been the tradition ever since, the event was originally called Macy’s Christmas Parade, since it officially welcomed Santa Claus and ushered in the holiday season.
That wasn’t the only thing that’s changed since the original event. An advertisement appearing the day before promised it to be “a tremendous pageant of tableaux, comedians, tragedians, elephants, bears, camels, monkeys, clowns, brass bands, and everything that makes a real Circus Parade so dear to everybody.” The store delivered on the claim, leading a throng of Macy’s employees and professional entertainers on a six-mile path from Harlem to the store’s location on 34th Street in Herald Square. (Today the trek is closer to two miles.) With them were floats depicting nursery rhyme favorites like the Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe, Little Miss Muffet, and Red Riding Hood, as well as four bands and the promised animals, borrowed from the Central Park Zoo.
What was not included in the spectacle were giant balloons — they weren’t introduced until the fourth annual parade, when Goodyear Tire manufactured a 21-foot caricature of the singer Eddie Cantor, a 60-foot dinosaur, and the first licensed character balloon, Felix the Cat. Having no plan to deflate the balloons, Macy’s simply released the balloons at the end of the parade — they promptly popped. The following year Macy’s designed their five balloons with slow-release valves and a return address, so they would float off and descend slowly, to be found by lucky, far-off scavengers and returned for a $100 prize. Of those five launches, one balloon landed in the East River, one drifted out to sea, and a third was destroyed by Long Island neighbors battling for the reward.
I was privileged to be either the overall program coordinator or one of the organizing and public relations staff for the participation in seven Macy’s parades by the McDonald’s All-American High School Band, from the mid-70’s to the early 80’s. McDonald’s created a program in which a musical selection committee picked a top musician from each state and the District of Columbia each year, to comprise a marching and concert band. the selection committee was initially headed by maestro Paul LaValle, former musical director of Radio City Music Hall. The Bands would march in the Macy’s Parade and then in the Tournament of Roses Parade, as well as do TV appearances and concerts in places like Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center.